Compassion Fatigue

A little blip in the radio news caught my attention today. Seems there is renewed fighting in Congo. A year ago, I would have sighed, tried to remember where Congo is, remembered (dimly) little bits of history from a long ago reading of _King Leopold’s Ghost_, and wondered (idly) whether Africa could ever be peaceful and prosperous.

Now it’s different. For the last little while, we’ve had a lovely woman named Bibiane living with us. Her parents were killed the last time there was violence in Congo (violence serious enough to rate coverage in the U.S. media, that is). Her mother was Rwandan, her father was a government minister. She was a journalist, and the combination of mixed-ethnic parentage, a prominent family, and her profession made her a high-profile target. She packed a small bag, thinking she would go away for a month and return to her husband and daughters (then 5 and 11) when the “little uprising” had been put down. Of course, the uprising was not put down, the rebels became the new government, and she hasn’t seen her family for more than 3 years.

So today, when I heard that there was trouble in Congo, I listened carefully to find out where; I hurried in to see if Bibiane had been able to talk to her family, if they were safe. I prayed with her for their safety. In short, I cared. It occurs to me (more forcefully than usual)that I *should* have cared before, that somehow, I have to learn to care broadly for people beyond my acquaintance, that just being vaguely and passingly sad for the tragedies I hear about every day is an inadequately Christian response. But *how* should I care? What should that caring look like? I can’t care about the whole world in the way that I care about my children, or even the way that I care about my cousins or the members of my ward. Can the response King Benjamin suggests be expanded to cover this situation–can I say “I would care more if I had a deeper well of compassion, but I don’t give (right now) because I don’t have anything meaningful to give”? How does one go about increasing one’s resources of compassion, especially compassion in the abstract or from a distance?


  1. “don’t we always have more capacity?”

    No. I mean, sure we do, in the eternal scheme, but here on Earth we have limits to how fast we can run and how far we can stretch our charity. It’s like the mother in Dickens who cared more for charity abroad than in her own home — we are limited in our ability to stretch ourselves, at least for the time being. At least, that’s what I tell myself when I step on the poor on my way to my gold rolls-royce.

  2. A few rambling thoughts:

    I’ve wondered about these same issues. Does Alma’s injunction to “morn with those that morn” mean I should morn for every sad story I hear?

    Truely disturbing stories are often in the news. I’ve started to wonder if it is really good for me to read about these things–they trouble my spirit more and more.

    When we hear of tragedy, it is easy to imagine the pain people go through. But maybe sometimes the pain I imagine is greater than the actual pain (ie. sometimes it is harder to watch someone else experience something than to experience it ourselves.)

    We don’t often hear of the sense of peace people can come to after the tragedy–and even when it is reported, my mind tends to brush it aside as though what really counts is the pain.

    Should I not also rejoice with those that rejoice? Why does that seem harder to do?

  3. helping out close to home (or even in the home) is hard. giving to a charty for faceless individuals in africa is easy.

    i think your solution is to focus on your family & your community. the more you care, the further you will grow. focusing on what you can do increases future capacity. matt evans is my inspiration here.

  4. Gary Lee says:

    I don’t have the answer to your question, but I feel your guilt, if not your pain. I think that, to some degree at least, we increase our resources of compassion by acting on our charitable impulses. Unlike our material resources, our compassion grows as it is deployed.

    We can’t have or show compassion from a distance. Compassion hurts, so often we ensure that we maintain a safe distance. I know that there are many individuals within a few short miles of me who will sleep on the streets tonight. I know that somebody else’s child will go to bed to hungry tonight, as she has for many nights now. I could provide the shelter and food they need. Those people are a safe distance from me. I don’t know those people, but I could easily find them and get to know them. As long as I don’t get to know those people, but am only aware of them in the abstract, then I am safe.

  5. KHH, there’s the rub — we’re not excused from being Christlike, even though we don’t have Christ’s abilities and powers (sure, I guess if I had a mustard seed of faith, that’d be different). Perhaps that is the real challenge Christ is laying out when he says to love our enemies — try loving the stranger!

  6. Kristine,
    Peter Singer argures that our typically accepted priority of moral obligations is wrong. In his pursuit of an argument for intervention, he maintains that my moral obligation to my sister is the same as to a woman in the Congo. This particular argument of his (which I couldn’t every lay out with justice) consistently springs to mind. When I was in college it completely made sense; I couldn’t understand why people would get married and have babies when there were so many people in the world without food or shelter. The immediacy of their needs seemed omnipresent. But now that I am older – and burdened with student debt and long hours at work – I am lazy and take for granted that my moral obligations start in my inner circle and work their way out. I spend more time with my husband than with beggars in the subway because I love him and because our relationship is one of the highest moral priority in my life. But that doesn’t mean I don’t try to reach out and give. I don’t think King Benjamin’s injunction means we shouldn’t always be trying harder to get outside our immediate family and friends and be of assistance to anyone and everyone we are able to serve. I haven’t really figured out the balance yet. And I never have understood where to draw the line- when can I say that I would give/care if I had the capacity- don’t we always have more capacity?

  7. Kristine says:

    OK, so if no one’s going to make the obvious comment, I will: probably there’s no such thing as compassion in the abstract. Thinking this way is really just an exercise in white liberal guilt trying to assuage itself.


  8. Kristine says:

    So, are we excused from becoming Christlike in terms of extending compassion to strangers until we have a more Christlike capacity to know? Is that capacity a gift we receive at some future point, or is it something we can/should be working at now?

  9. You’re absolutely right. This is why I don’t give to beggars in the subway, but I’d give $100 to a friend in need — contextualizing need makes all the difference.

    I can’t help but wonder if Christ’s tie to the Holy Ghost, and his capacity to know each one of us personally, is what enabled him to give so freely. Would Christ have been able to perform the atonement if it were a sacrifice for some people in a far off land whom he would never know?